What is anxiety? Anxiety is a reaction to a perceived threat. We are programmed to be anxious when we feel threatened—whether it’s an immediate threat (a wild animal chasing us) or a distant threat (thinking about going to an event where I don’t know anyone). Anxiety is an evolutionary response that can keep us safe. However, anxiety can become counterproductive when our sensation of anxiety doesn’t match what’s going on in our environment, and at that point becomes a disorder. Anxiety is something that everyone experiences but becomes a mental health issue when it interferes with work, relationships, or general quality of life.
Why am I anxious? There isn’t one single cause of anxiety. While it’s true that some people develop anxiety because of traumatic or stressful experiences, others develop it after a lifetime of constant worrying. The symptoms of anxiety disorder can be very different than those of other illnesses, and they may even be mistaken for other medical conditions. For example, panic attacks often mimic the symptoms of heart attacks. When you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety, it’s important to get medical advice from a qualified professional. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis and seek treatment for your anxiety disorder before it gets out of control.
How do I cope? There are many ways to deal with anxiety. Options include learning about anxiety, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, correct breathing techniques, lifestyle changes such as dietary adjustments, exercise, learning to be assertive, building self-esteem, cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, structured problem solving, medication and focusing on self-care.
First, it is important to prioritize self-care. Self-care often gets conflated with self-comfort but it doesn’t just mean taking baths and getting massages (although that can be a part of it). True self-care is doing things that make you feel more like yourself. These activities are not always fun but they make you feel better in the long-run, thus reducing our anxiety. Think about what makes you feel whole and find ways to experience this on a regular basis. Examples of self-care might be exercising, going to the doctor, doing a simple errand you’ve been putting off, taking a break, etc. It is important to schedule self-care as it is unlikely to happen on its own. Work, family, stressors…life always gets in the way. Things that can be done at any time are often done at no time, so I recommend literally putting what you’re going to do for self-care into your calendar.
It’s also important to focus on lifestyle changes. If you are sleeping 5h a night, drinking 10 cups of coffee, skipping meals, etc, you are not going to feel good and your anxiety will skyrocket. You may even adjust to that feeling of anxiety and think that it cannot be changed. It may sound overly simplistic but focusing on your foundations-drinking water, getting movement, eating regular meals, getting good sleep-make a big difference in mood regulation.
At times, it may be most helpful to simply redirect yourself to focus on something other than your anxiety. You may want to reach out to others, do some work around your home, or engage in an enjoyable activity or hobby. You can engage in a healthy distraction such as doing chores, helping another person, reading or watching something stimulating, or a creative activity such as journaling or drawing.
Other times it might be best to not distract yourself and turn inward. Research shows that mindfulness has been shown to reduce anxiety. Mindfulness simply means staying in the present moment, even if that moment is uncomfortable. You can do this through prayer, meditation, deep breathing (from the diaphragm as opposed to the chest), or committing to doing an activity mindfully, such as cooking. When your mind wanders (this is what minds do) simply return to your breath. Mindfulness takes practice but it is worth it. Anxiety loses its grip when you take your focus off of worry and bring your awareness back to the present.
Consider also the function of anxiety. We may think of anxiety as something to get rid of but bear in mind there are times when it is appropriate to be anxious. Sometimes anxiety can actually be helpful. Anxiety is a normal, healthy reaction to difficult circumstances. When feeling anxious you might ask yourself what the feeling is trying to communicate to you. Maybe you feel anxious before an interview because you really want the job. Can that anxiety mobilize you to do your best? Can you maybe even turn the anxiety into excitement? Or perhaps the anxiety stems from negative thoughts such as “I never do well at interviews.” In this case some self-esteem building and challenging distorted thinking will be helpful. You can look for proof that contradicts that thought (this is a big part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). For example, if you’ve ever been hired for a job that’s proof against this thought. Try to remember all the times you performed well despite your anxiety and then come up with a more balanced way of thinking.
Medications are sometimes used in conjunction with psychotherapy. Although they’re generally safe, some can have side effects. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed for depression, but they can also treat anxiety. There are many options to treat anxiety, and each person’s individual situation should be assessed and treated accordingly. Anxiety treatment will differ depending on the severity of the symptoms.
Finally, a good therapist can help you manage your anxiety. A therapist won’t be able to make your anxiety disappear but will help develop strategies that work for you and your anxiety will be reduced. Anxiety is a common problem, and therapists can help you find the right approach for you. A therapist can give you education on why you are anxious, instruct you on mindfulness, and help you practice thought challenging and other anxiety management techniques.